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In election countdown, Turnbull has to juggle ‘governing’ and ‘campaigning’

Malcolm Turnbull kick-starts the unofficial election campaign with a visit to a Canberra construction site. Lukas Coch/AAP

Malcolm Turnbull was in full lawyer mode when he confirmed on Tuesday the July 2 double dissolution, hedging his wording to meet constitutional niceties.

He said that “an appropriate time” after the May 3 budget he would ask Governor-General Peter Cosgrove to dissolve both houses of parliament “for an election, which I expect to be held on 2 July”.

Pressed by frustrated reporters on why he wasn’t being more explicit, Turnbull said he was paying due respect to the governor-general.

In Question Time – the last before parliament resumes for budget week – Opposition Leader Bill Shorten briefly surfed in on this prime ministerial pedantry. Shorten accused Turnbull of being “paralysed”, although he’d have known this was nothing more than a courtesy – and perhaps a subtle contrast with Stephen Conroy’s discourtesy to Cosgrove on Monday.

In seeking a double dissolution election, a government presents its “trigger” bills to establish there is a deadlock between the houses, so the constitutional conditions have been met for the governor-general to act.

The Turnbull government has undisputed triggers in the rejected industrial relations legislation, including restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

While what formally triggers such an election is often not much in evidence in the campaign, the government is linking its commitment to the ABCC into both its broad economic story and its anti-union message.

In Tuesday’s news conference at a Canberra building site, Turnbull said the ABCC’s restoration after an election win was part of the government’s economic plan, every element of which – including innovation, free trade, competition reform, the defence white paper, shipbuilding investments – “is focused on delivering jobs”.

The government’s immediate challenge is juggling “campaigning” with “governing”. “Governing” carries more authority; besides, the Coalition wants to avoid a Labor argument getting traction that this is a semi-caretaker period so it shouldn’t be making controversial decisions that could commit a successor government.

“I just want to be very clear that we are governing,” Turnbull said. “We have a lot of decisions to make, not least of which is the budget.”

In the Coalition partyroom, Treasurer Scott Morrison erected a high bar for that budget, saying it wasn’t a “normal or typical” one because it would be “a jump-off point for a federal election”, providing the foundation of the economic plan to be taken to voters.

Morrison listed three tasks for the budget: to stick to the government’s plan for jobs and growth; to support a sustainable tax system, focused on investment, that would support expenditure; and to ensure the government lived within its means, just as households must do.

Anticipating whatever tax changes are in the budget – the trimming of superannuation concessions has been widely canvassed – Morrison allowed for altering the mix of taxes but not the overall burden.

As it prepares its election pitch the government has to urgently address the need to be seen to be doing something about banks’ bad behaviour.

Backbenchers talked banks in the party room, with a couple urging a royal commission – to which the government remains adamantly opposed – while others complained about the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

Aware it is bleeding in the debate about a royal commission, with Shorten painting the Liberals as “defending vested interests and the big banks”, the government is about to beef up ASIC, responding to a report commissioned by Joe Hockey.

Morrison told the party meeting ASIC had to be more “focused”; it required greater surveillance capability and a more prosecutorial attitude. He said the government had accepted the recommendations of the financial systems inquiry for increased penalties and a capacity for ASIC to intervene in financial products.

On Wednesday the government will announce a package of about A$120 million over several years for ASIC’s operations. The banks will be stung to recover the cost.

Turnbull is also moving to fill in gaps in Coalition education policy. While at the recent Council of Australian Governments meeting the government indicated what funding it will provide to the states for hospitals, it left hanging the money for schools, which did not have to be settled so quickly.

But given Labor is making a big schools offer, the government can’t go through an election campaign staying mum. Nor can it avoid detailing its higher education policy – so botched in the 2014 budget.

Asked about these areas Turnbull said: “You can be very safe in assuming that our education policy will be clearly set out between now and the election.”

While the government has public gaps in its education plans, Labor is yet to spell out its health policy. One question – which Shorten dodged on Tuesday – is whether Labor would leave the health insurance rebate intact.

Another question he avoided is whether a Labor government would restore the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, scrapped by parliament this week. The tribunal might be an article of faith with the opposition’s union base, but a pledge to bring it back would give ammunition to Turnbull, who claimed the abolition saves 50,000 jobs.

Shorten told caucus that beyond Turnbull’s popularity, the government had nothing.

At a news conference he boiled down Labor’s pitch. “Labor is ready for this election because we know what we stand for. Decent jobs, well-funded education, quality health care, protecting Medicare, renewable energy encouraged to take up the burden of climate change, and a fair taxation system.”

Despite Turnbull’s popularity – still high though it has progressively declined – Labor is not shying away from directly targeting leadership. “Australians are getting increasingly sick and tired of a prime minister who dithers and does not deliver,” Shorten said. “In the last seven months plus, we’ve seen a prime minister slowly shrink into his job.”

This targeting is a mark of how far Shorten and Labor have come.

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